Queer and femme
By: Gemma Killen
In Year 3, Lisa Andrews calls me a lesbian. We are down the bottom of the playground, a group of girls gathered by an alcove in the hedge. We have been playing ‘Witches Boarding School’ and I am excelling at my role as the evil headmistress. Lisa has broken some arbitrary rule and I am scolding her when she spits out her rebellion:
“I don’t have to listen to you – you’re just a lesbian!”
Just a lesbian. I’m nine and all my possibility is squashed into a single word and I don’t even know what it means. I ask mum and she explains that sometimes women fall in love with women. I don’t understand why that means Lisa doesn’t have to follow the rules of the game or why she doesn’t have to listen to me.
Later that week, Mrs. Neff asks me to think about wearing longer dresses to school so I don’t distract the boys. Gender and sexuality have become tangled in a tight knot in my guts that my young mind cannot undo and I learn that the right way to be a woman is to be kind, quiet, invisible.
For my 10th birthday, I tell Mum I want to host a dinner party. I invite only girls, and in a strange foreshadowing of my queer future, I tell half of them to dress as boys. I wear a full suit with a cummerbund, draw a moustache under my nose and tell everyone to call me Prince Cuthbert.
The princesses arrive in makeshift petticoats under huge polka-dot dresses from their mothers’ wardrobes and the other princes and lords wear tweed jackets, stiff pants and top hats. I feel powerful in my suit as I spin Princess Megan across the warm cement of my driveway. In my prince-skin, I am loud and I take up space.
Six years later, my first real boyfriend sneaks over after Mum has gone to bed and we have sex on the pull-out couch in the room at the bottom of my garden. The sex makes me feel awkward and powerful and sad all at once. My sexuality is a bubble, swelling in my chest, threatening to burst me open.
He is lying naked on the couch and I am sitting up, my t-shirt covering my chest. I ask if he thinks I’m beautiful. He pauses.
“Don’t take this the wrong way…” He puts his hand over my knee. “You know I think you’re beautiful…” His thumb traces a circle around the edge of my kneecap. “I just don’t know if anyone else would think so. You’re a little bigger than most girls, you know?”
I remember: the right way to be a woman is to be quiet, small, invisible.
Love Cats is playing loud and distorted while I throw a sticky sweet shot down my throat. For a second, I forget about the size of my thighs under my too tight dress.
Kat wraps her arms around my waist and pulls me backwards to the dance floor. I dance and my red curls leap from my head and light the bar on fire.
Later, we sit outside and I roll Kat a cigarette. She is telling me about some boy with long, unwashed hair. She feels ungainly, she says, too solid for this particular boy who is mostly into ‘girls’, you know the kind – soft and proficient at eyeliner. I light her cigarette and the opening strains of Aretha Franklin’s RESPECT drift through the window into our conversation.
“This song always reminds me of you.”
I cough, surprised. She takes a long drag, her eyes closed.
“You’re just so curvy, you know? So… womanly.”
At 21, I feel too fat, too loud, too sad to be womanly.
Another night, there’s this drunk girl sitting at the end of the bar. Her short hair is messy and one side of her collar points to the ceiling. It’s 3am. My curls are stuck with sweat to the back of my neck and I look out of the corner of my eye at her. I swallow, walk up and ask if she thinks I should cut my hair.
“Do whatever you want, it’s your hair.”
“But do you think it will make me look more gay?” If I don’t say the word, I figure she won’t know.
She frowns, shrugs, looks me over then looks back at her beer. I want her to look at me again. I want her to smash her lips into my skin, to lose herself in the smell of me, the sound of my breath. She doesn’t even look that interesting, but she looks gay. I don’t want to be invisible anymore.
“I just feel like no-one knows I’m a dyke with this mess on my head.”
“Why does it matter if anyone knows? Why is it anyone’s business?”
She gulps down her beer.
“Is it just so you can get laid?” She laughs and stumbles out of the bar.
I’ve spent so long being quiet, being kind, being small, I feel like nobody can see me. It’s not about getting laid, though that would be nice.
I’m reading a queer blog. My girlfriend is lying next to me, eating Vegemite toast and reading Bill Bryson. My hair is gone, shaved off in a moment of rebellion and excitement.
“Hey, lovely, listen to this. This thing on the internet says that girly dykes are called femmes!”
“What are you talking about?”
“It says you can recognise a femme because she often wears a bandana in a cute knot on her head!”
“That’s just like you!” Her enthusiasm passes and she falls back into Bill’s pages. I stare at the screen and stroke a ghost curl on the back of my neck.
The knot of gender and sexuality in my guts unravels, just a bit.
I choose a red lipstick and a pair of sparkly pink unicorn earrings. A strappy top so that the rainbow tattoo under my collarbone is on display and lots of sunscreen because it’s unusually bright out for the end of March.
I get to the cafe too early for the date and slip into the bathroom to nervously pee and reapply my lipstick. When I come out, she’s waiting and she grins. I order a cheeseburger and a chocolate chip cookie. My hairy legs feel sexy under my jeans, my fingers feel long and my tongue soft.
It’s not that femme gave me a box to fit into, or even that it offered another ‘right’ way to be a woman. Instead, finding femme freed me from the mandate that the aesthetics of my gender match the throbbing of my heart.
Nothing in the world has changed really. Girls’ bodies are still policed and controlled, teenage boys and drunk dykes are still cruel. But there is colour in my cheeks now, light in my chest – I’m not invisible anymore.
Now when my painted lips part in laughter, everyone knows I’m gay.
Gemma Killen is a writer, editor and academic. Her work focuses on queer life, community and friendship and has appeared in Australian Feminist Studies, Autostraddle, Feminartsy & The Big Issue and Growing Up Queer in Australia. When she’s not writing, she’s probably sewing or admiring some cats.
Image: Steve Johnson
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